Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Monday, September 19, 2016

What is Religious Freedom in the United States? Part One: The Origins

On September 6, 1620, a small ship named the Mayflower left England with 102 passengers in addition to the ship's crew. Here is page one of a copy of the original, handwritten passenger list from the manuscript of Governor William Bradford written up around 1651.
One of my own ancestors, Richard Warren, appears on this page. The Mayflower passengers are usually jointly referred to as "Pilgrims" regardless of their original purpose for coming to America. See the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. Despite common tradition, not all of the passengers were religiously motivated, only 37 of the passengers were members of the separatist Leiden congregation. The other passengers were recruited by Thomas Weston of the London Merchant Adventurers who funded the Pilgrims voyage. Many of the other passengers were servants of either the Leiden Congregation or the London Merchant Adventurers. My ancestor, Richard Warren was one of the London Merchant Adventurers and another of my ancestors, Francis Cooke, was a member of the Leiden Congregation. Some of the crewmen of the ship decided to remain in America. The most prominent of these is John Alden.  See Wikipedia: List of Mayflower passengers.

Some of the original Mayflower passengers died at sea, others died during the first winter in America. About half of the passengers died in the first winter. The identity of those who survived to have descendants is extensively documented down five generations in a series of books published by General Society of Mayflower Descendants (The Mayflower Society). Forty-five of the original Mayflower passengers, in addition to those who died at sea, died and were buried on Cole's Hill.

The Leiden Congregation, also called the Scrooby Congregation. Quoting from the Wikipedia article on the Scrooby Congregation,
The Scrooby Congregation were English Protestant separatists who lived near Scrooby, on the outskirts of Bawtry, a small market town at the border of South Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. In 1607/8 the Congregation emigrated to Netherlands in search of the freedom to worship as they chose. They founded the "English separatist church at Leiden", one of several English separatist groups in the Netherlands at the time.
For a detailed history of the Pilgrims see:

Dexter, Henry Martyn, and Morton Dexter. The England and Holland of the Pilgrims. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1905.

One of the basic books about the influence of the Pilgrims on American society is the following:

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Before the Mayflower passengers landed, they determined to resolve any potential conflicts that might arise as a result of the very different motivations of those on the voyage. The results of their discussions was the signing of a document known as the Mayflower Compact. Interestingly, the original copy of the Mayflower Compact has been lost. The earliest recorded copy of the document was published in 1622 in a pamphlet entitled, Mourt's' Relation. The identities of the original signers was was not noted until the printing of Nathaniel Morton's New-England Memoriall in 1669. 

Morton, Nathaniel. New-Englands memoriall. Boston: Usher, 1669.

Here is the text of the Mayflower Compact as reported.
In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc.

Having undertaken for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.
This document is generally acknowledged as the foundation of self-government in what is now the United States of America. These English settlers had inherited the concept of the "Rule of Law" originating in the Magna Carta signed in 1215 but as the population of the the American colonies increased, extended that concept in America to include representative government.

It is extremely difficult to find objective and balanced accounts of the early history of the English colonies in America. Most of the websites and books on the subject of the origins of religious freedom are clearly biased by current political views on the subject. What is even more difficult is to elicit some sort of consensus on the subject of religious freedom. Clearly, the early English Pilgrims were concerned about their ability to worship as the deemed proper. They were separatists or non-conformists and as such had suffered intense religious persecution in England. However, religious freedom as we might define it today, was not the objective of these early settlers.

The earliest concepts of "religious freedom" were developed by Roger Williams, who ultimately founded a settlement in Rhode Island that accepted settlers of all religious persuasions, including my own remote Tanner ancestor, William Tanner.

To be continued.

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